By the time I turned 18 in 2000, I had met more than 300 people from the internet. Lots of them were dudes. My first boyfriend, and my second boyfriend. A guy who dated my friend to get me alone in his house. One who followed me home and sat on my letterbox for a whole night. Two incredibly sweet men I could and should have married.
And later, “Karl”.
Fifteen years ago I was unhappily married, lonely in my own home. My husband and I fought all the time. By day, I juggled self-employment with motherhood. By night, I went on internet chat rooms to look for a way out.
One night I got a private message from a stranger. His screen name was just K. I can’t remember what he said, except that it was charming, irreverent, clever.
I was captivated. Unreservedly. And with hope, too. He sent me notes and anecdotes and photos.
He was despicably, unreasonably, horrifyingly handsome. A kind of unproblematic-Jack Sparrow mashed into Mike Patton. Tiny goatee, nose ring, theatre tattoos.
“Oh,” he said, when I declared him so. “I am, aren’t I?”
We talked for months. I told him things I have still never told anyone else. Sometimes he would disappear for a week and I would feel like my heart might explode but he would always return, packed with fresh stories of groupies he’d rejected or accolades he’d been given.
He sent me photo after photo. Family birthdays. Christmases. He and some friends on a hike. Alone in his bedroom. Even a video of him playing guitar. He was a whole person, a whole life.
A parcel arrived at my house. A do-not-bend. The envelope was covered with fine-liner drawings of whimsy, fear and romance. Inside, a letter written in ridiculous curled flourishes, bursting with admiration for my craft and my soul. And a CD with a white label and one word in his handwriting: LISTEN.
He was a dilettante and a beatnik. He spoke to the part of me with an artist’s heart that had been interrupted by children and debt and employment. He asked for my stories. He heard my poetry.
(I was 21. Everything was part of the quest for love and meaning.)
“Can I call you?” I typed.
“Soon,” he said. “The anticipation is erotic.”
Then he dropped off for real. First from IRC, and then from our other communication.
I played the CD over and over. I can’t remember what was on it, whether it was his original music or a mix-tape or spoken word, but days of my life disappeared into it.
A few years later, I did leave my husband. The circumstances were suspect but not malicious. We had been unhappy for a long time, I had tried to get him to work on it with me, we were only 24.
Also, I had met someone else. I was obsessed with his energy: artistic, melancholy, uncertain, left-handed. I loved him from the minute I met him, and I still do, 12 years later.
We moved into a small apartment with a sunny courtyard. One afternoon I was sitting in it, drinking a cider and lurking on the internet.
You know when Facebook was new and you added every person you’d ever met? I was doing that. Scrolling through old school friends (and enemies), people I had worked with, a random couple I met in a bar.
And then: his name, in full. A profile picture unmistakably him, pre-cancelled Johnny Depp eyes. I smashed the Add Friend button. I was happy, then, in my apartment with my angry musical southpaw. But I was curious, too.
“Hey,” he typed into chat, electrifyingly, stupefyingly.
“Hey,” I wrote back. “So good to see you.”
There was a long pause.
“Do we know each other?”
Assuming Neighbours-style amnesia, I gave him an overview. Nothing, no recognition. So I recounted everything. The long chats, the songs, the drawings. The fact that he had had my home address. None of it was familiar to him.
“Did we ever speak on the phone?” he said, and when I said we hadn’t he said, “Can we now?”
He called me from his home in Launceston, where he lived with his sisters. His voice was different from the one I’d imagined: straightforward, unlyrical, ordinary.
He asked me what I knew about him, so I told him. His family, his music, his dreams of being an actor. I knew where he’d been to school, his dog’s name, what pizza he liked. I knew everything about him.
But we had never spoken before.
I shared all the evidence I had, which wasn’t much. Recollections of things he’d said. Times of day we’d talked. I pointed to specific photos on Karl’s Facebook profile that I’d been sent. I explained that “he” had sent me stories and lyrics and drawings.
“Drawings?” he said. “Like these?” He directed me to another profile. Swathes of familiar art.
The man who had borrowed Karl’s identity was a family friend in his 50s. He was a successful business owner, a father and a divorcee. He had known Karl since he was a child and had a dangerous and perverse fascination with everything he did, all of his youthful optimism and good looks.
But he was a beautiful writer. Karl’s voice — the real Karl — had none of the poetic quality I had come to know online.
He was Karl, to me. But he wasn’t, at all.
We made a half-effort to go to the police. Had anyone been injured? (Only emotionally.) Was anyone in danger? (Only existential.) They struggled to even feign interest.
“I feel sick,” I said, thinking of hundreds of hours imagining my better life.
“Yeah,” said Real-Karl.
And then he was gone, and we didn’t speak again. For a while, we were Facebook friends, in name only, until we weren’t. I looked at his profile today, like a creep. He lives here, now, just a few suburbs away.